They can be identified by their distinct stripe-like appearance, which some liken to claw marks.
“When stretch marks first appear, they tend to be red, purple, pink, reddish-brown, or dark brown, depending on your skin colour,” says Dr Anastasia Therianou, consultant dermatologist. “In time however, the colour fades and the narrow bands sink beneath your skin.”
Like them, loathe them or don’t give a toss about them, most of us will develop stretch marks at some point throughout our lives. While they are a very common skin condition, especially at various stages of development and during pregnancy, they can be unnerving if you don’t know what they are and can affect self-confidence.
To help us understand stretch marks, we’ve called upon expert dermatologists to explain exactly what they are, why they occur and the best way of preventing them, as well as how to promote healing and reduce the appearance (should you want to).
WHAT ARE STRETCH MARKS?
“Stretch marks or striae are caused by tears in the collagen and elastin fibres in the dermis of the skin,” explains Dr David Jack, aesthetic doctor and founder of Dr David Jack Clinic. “This can be caused by either stretching of the skin itself or as a result of hormonal factors affecting the fibroblast cells in the dermis, making the collagen layer weaker and more prone to damage.”
Stretch marks are essentially a form of skin scarring which can occur anywhere on the body, but tend to affect areas which have endured a growth spurt, for example, breasts during puberty.
WHY DO STRETCH MARKS HAPPEN?
Stretch marks are very common, and can occur for a variety of reasons as Dr Therianou explains; “Stretch marks are most commonly associated with pregnancy, but there are several instances whereby they may well occur.
These often include puberty, where the child experiences a sudden growth spurt, as a result of weight training and subsequent rapid muscle growth, or simply when someone has gained or lost weight very quickly.”
In addition, Dr Jack explains that the formation of stretch marks can be caused by hormones themselves, particularly if there is a sudden change, for example in certain thyroid and adrenal disorders, or with people taking anabolic steroids with excessive levels of testosterone. “Puberty, pregnancy and polycystic ovarian syndrome are states that also predispose to the development of striae, all because of the stretch on tissue combined with the hormonal changes,” he says.
ARE STRETCH MARKS DANGEROUS?
Luckily, stretch marks are totally harmless to physical health. “Stretch marks aren’t dangerous and are widely considered to be a purely cosmetic issue,” notes Dr Therianou. However, there’s no denying that any type of skin condition has the potential to negatively impact someone’s mental health as well as their self confidence.
It’s important to seek support and advice if you feel down about your stretch marks – even though your doctor may not class stretch marks as requiring physical intervention, they will be able to provide mental health support.
WILL STRETCH MARKS GO AWAY BY THEMSELVES?
Just like with other scars, stretch marks will fade over time. However, they are permanent and may still be slightly visible. “Redness in new stretch marks will generally turn pale white with time, but once the damage is done, it’s done,” says Dr Jack.
CAN YOU PREVENT STRETCH MARKS?
“Generally speaking, no,” says Dr Therianou. “However, researchers have found that using products containing the herb centella or hyaluronic acid which is naturally present in our skin, may help prevent stretch marks.”
Dr Jack also notes that maintaining a steady weight may help to prevent them. “Weight gain and body building will often result in the formation of stretch marks. However, other than by not taking steroids, keeping your weight stable and treating any hormonal disorders early on, you can’t really prevent them.”
HOW CAN YOU TREAT STRETCH MARKS?
“Researchers have studied many of the creams, lotions, and gels sold to treat stretch marks. While no one product seems to help all of the time – and some don’t seem to help at all – researchers have discovered some helpful hacks,” says Dr Therianou. “In studies, two prescription ingredients seem to offer some relief – hyaluronic acid and Tretinoin (a retinoid).” The most important thing is to apply topical treatments early, ideally as soon as you see the mark developing.
However, not everyone is so optimistic about topical solutions. “There is literally nothing on the market that works for stretch marks,” says Dr Jack. “A lot of creams are touted to help but in reality these are always ineffective as the damage is too deep and extensive in the dermis.”
Luckily there are a number of in-clinic, non-invasive procedures that are able to help reduce the appearance of stretch marks – but these require commitment and often come at a price. “There are two treatments that can help reduce the appearance and width of stretch marks,” explains Dr Jack. “Fractional resurfacing (particularly with deeper treatments such as Morpheus8) and carboxytherapy.
Fractional resurfacing works by creating micro injuries on the skin and then stimulating the fibroblast cells in the dermis to produce new collagen and elastin fibres in the damaged areas. Usually 4-6 treatments are needed, once per month to really see a difference in this. Carboxytherapy similarly has a stimulating effect and involves superficial injection of heated carbon dioxide gas, which activates the fibroblast cells – usually once per week for twelve weeks is the recommended treatment schedule.”